Ronan Hession, or Mumblin’ Deaf Ro, has just released his third album, after a break of five years in which real life took over. In the space between 2007’s The Herring and the Brine and 2012’s Dictionary Crimes, he became the dad of two boys and his mother, Angela, died of cancer. If it seems intrusive to open a feature with this level of detail about an artist’s life, it’s also impossible to write about Dictionary Crimes, autobiographical as it is, without doing so. Indeed, on the blog that accompanies the album, Ro does the same.
In the opening scene of ‘The Birdcage’, Ro sings about shaving his mum’s head when she comes home from hospital; she chiding him for his roughness, he being as gentle, as tender as he can. “A practical love”, he calls it. The shimmering ‘Cade Calf Call’ uses the titular image, of a calf abandoned by its mother, to express the raw, animal yearning felt for your folks when they’re no longer around. ‘Little Mite’ unsparingly recounts the loss of a baby and the effect of a miscarriage on a couple (“There are things to unwish for / And plans to unmake”). And in ‘Being Bill Cosby’, in a scene familiar to anyone with a couple of tiny kids, Ro writes of “Stooping to clean beans from a DVD / Trying to explain that we don’t stuff tuna in our trains”. Coincidentally, as I was finishing this piece, I partook in a family dinner that involved scooping a small wooden figurine out of my one-year-old son’s spuds and gravy. It’s good to see this stuff in songs.
These elemental experiences, of being simultaneously a parent, a child, a sibling, adding to your family and losing your family, are the core of Mumblin’ Deaf Ro’s honest, insightful, empathetic songwriting. On Dictionary Crimes, Ro looks hard at family life, in all its joy, love, tiredness and tragedy – and doesn’t look away. “I have tried to write about these things as plainly as I can, without ornamentation, but also without any deliberate opaqueness,” Ro told me. “Either you tell people what it’s really like or else don’t bother.”
I was pointed in the direction of Dictionary Crimes when I asked a question on Twitter: “Looking for suggestions for songs that deal well with what it is like to be a dad. Anyone?” It had often struck me how under-addressed parenthood is in pop music. Do you think that’s right, and if so were you conscious of it when you began writing & planning the album?
It’s been a sort of campaign of mine over the past ten years to try and broaden the range of subjects that are dealt with in pop music in my own small way. I have always felt slightly baffled that the range of subjects dealt with in painting, books and movies is not reflected in songwriting, where the limited perspective of the twenty-something male still predominates.
Your question asks about parenthood in particular. Of course people write songs for their kids, or maybe about their kids, but it’s hard to find songs written in a plain and straightforward way about what it’s like to be a new parent: how tiring it is; the sense of inadequacy; the overwhelming volumes of advice you have to absorb. Aliens who came down to earth and tried to understand our culture would never guess from listening to pop records that we ever reproduced. Part of my interest in writing an album like Dictionary Crimes, about being in a family, was that I felt it was a theme with obvious personal and general relevance, but which had largely been neglected.
Many of the songs on the record are extraordinarily intimate, delicate and detailed, lyrically; and the musical settings are such that the lyrics are out there loud and clear – there’s no hiding place. Did you feel nervous revealing so much of yourself and your family life?
Yes – and I still feel quite nervous about it. I am a naturally private person and don’t want to come across as some sort of blabber-mouth diarist. However, when I went through these things I did look at my music collection and say ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this?’ (Obviously I didn’t do this literally – I’m not a moron). I felt it would be dishonest to dodge writing about such important events in my life and I don’t really understand why such common experiences as cancer and miscarriage are not written about more often.
In psychiatry there are different views on the value or otherwise of grief. Broadly, the opposing arguments are: (A) Grief is part of what it is to be human and is of value; it’s a form of suffering that we should not be denied nor should we seek to avoid; and (B) Pain is just pain. It’s not of value. It just hurts. In your experience in the last five years, did you feel that there was value in your own grieving; did you learn anything, did you gain wisdom, anything positive; or did it just hurt?
I certainly felt that it was a valuable process. On the Dictionary Crimes blog, I described the loss of my parents as like a terminal moraine in my life, where everything that I had carried of my parents throughout my life was suddenly deposited and had to be sorted through. Grieving was a central part of that sorting and, if nothing else, the album documents my reflections – wisdom is overstating it – on that process.
Grief is also bittersweet in unexpected ways. Though it’s painful, your grief becomes a vivid and living link between you and the person you’re missing. They are closest to your heart at those times when you miss them most. In that way, while you want to get over your grief, part of you feels that it keeps the person alive in your life.
In my experience, grief is not like a bout of food poisoning, where you process it, get it out of your system, and then go back to your normal self. Profound grief changes you as a person. You lose some of the core reference points that you had in your life; you lose utterly that naive sense that your life is all ahead of you; and you catch a glimpse of just how deep life can get.
On a more positive note, I never fully appreciated the amount of kindness that was in the world until all this happened. Most kindness is expressed in private, and invisible to all but those directly involved. It is touching and inspiring to witness the small kindnesses and thoughtfulness that people are capable of.
If it’s not too personal a question, what did you find helped you deal with the grief of your mum’s passing?
I think that my having children has helped me to deal with that sense of loss. In a short time I went from my mother still being alive, to having no living parents and becoming a parent. Aside from the distraction and joy that children bring, there is an obvious message about succession between the generations which makes a sad situation easier to understand.
Though I am not religious, I remember watching Pope John Paul II saying Easter mass when his illness was at an advanced stage. I remarked that it was awful that they couldn’t let him retire and that he had to go through that in such a public way. My wife’s aunt said in response to me that he was showing people how to suffer. That really stuck with me and I refer to it in ‘The Harm’ with the line “I’m to set, I suppose, some kind of final example, of how to suffer with grace and patience”. My mother was utterly at peace with her situation from the moment she was told she was dying. Above all, that helped me to start to accept the situation.
Lastly, I was struck by the craft of the writing on Dictionary Crimes; like ‘Charlie Brown’, where the narrative switches deftly in the last stanza from you as dad (‘the household depending on me’) to you as son (“But mostly I just sit here / With a picture of my Dad)”. My first thought was that the writing reminded me of the way a William Trevor or Kevin Barry short story can quickly reach a surprising but satisfying conclusion. Are there particular writers who have influenced the way you structure your songs?
I do admire William Trevor, who is very skilled as mugging his readers – it’s impressive how he can make such seemingly unassuming stories leave such an impression. I have a broad reading taste, but my favourite author is Thomas Hardy – he has a deep emotional insight into characters and weaves his poetry into his prose. In terms of structure, I think there’s a myth that stories have to have a beginning, middle and end – in my experience they usually have two of those at most. In the past I have compared songs to jokes: the opening line needs to tell the listener straight away what the scenario us (‘a man walks into a bar’); you need some details and digressions to build up tension and distract the listener from the punchline; and they rely on the listener to complete the experience – songs depend as much on the imagination of the listener as they do on the imagination of the songwriter.
Dictionary Crimes is out now on Popical Island. Mumblin’ Deaf Ro plays the Kevin Barry Room in the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on October 6th, and the Unitarian Church, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, on October 13th.